Microsoft has seen the future, and it is bots.
Unfortunately, Microsoft Corp.'s most high-profile attempt at showcasing the future – the conversational chatbot called Tay – turned into a racist, anti-social monster that appears unfixable. But even if Tay worked perfectly, it didn't actually have any jobs to do, and the kind of bots Microsoft wants its software partners to develop and host on platforms like Skype are intended to reshape technology from something based on pointing and clicking to an actual conversation with our machines.
Microsoft chief executive officer Satya Nadella outlined his vision of the future to a crowd of software developers in a keynote speech on Wednesday at the company's Build conference in San Francisco. The event was chockablock with updates to Microsoft services: The first major update to Windows 10 was confirmed for the summer, Xbox will be better integrated with Windows, the same goes for Linux, and the HoloLens augmented reality visor will begin to ship to developers immediately.
But the main thrust of the event was for Mr. Nadella to describe how bots and machine learning tools are going to create a new "distributed computing fabric" that will vault Microsoft back into relevance on mobile platforms that are built and owned by rivals at Apple and Google. The theory is that if the App Store is owned by the phone makers, you go around the store with bots that live inside other popular mobile services.
"We want every developer to build experts for Cortana [Microsoft's cross-platform Siri-like assistant], we want every developer to build bots as the new applications for every business and every service," Mr. Nadella said.
Microsoft is a little late to the party. Everyone from Facebook and Slack to Amazon and Google are already vying to build the best hosts for these new bot services. Canadian messaging company Kik is among those making major investments in this bot-driven future that foresees commands to semi-artificially intelligent interactive chatbots expanding into everything from physical commerce (buying stuff at a shop with your phone, essentially) to controlling Internet of Things devices (texting your coffee machine to make an espresso). Microsoft showed off similar concepts on Wednesday, including a cupcake shopbot and a Domino's Pizza bot that can deliver food to your location.
But Microsoft is offering developers a new bot framework that includes access to 22 powerful application program interfaces to enable everything from visual processing to speech and text recognition, knowledge base and search capabilities, and other forms of machine learning – all powered by its Azure cloud computing services. The goal is to provide all the tools necessary for everyone from video-game makers to coffee shops to build a bot without having to build their own machine learning systems from scratch.
While Microsoft's first bot platform will be Skype, which has 300 million monthly average users, its intention is to be the backbone in a bot ecosystem that works seamlessly no matter what phone, tablet, laptop or virtual reality wearable you use.
It's a bold vision, and one hopes Microsoft partners are better and keeping their future bots from losing their minds the way Tay did.